Engaging policy-makers isn’t child’s play

What do ecologists have in common with those working in early childhood education? The answer isn’t immediately obvious but a recent article in Science demonstrates that both groups face the same challenges, and can learn the same useful lessons, when engaging with policy-makers.

William T. Gormley Jr. explains that in early childhood education, as in other domains, scientific research informs policy-making and that a straighforward linear model is deficient in explaining how this may happen. Gormley Jr. describes as a ‘hypodermic needle theory’ the idea that a well-crafted piece of science presented to a policy-maker leads to the generation of a well-crafted piece of policy. He cites a study of the U.S. federal policy-making process to illustrate the number of influences, besides consideration of scientific evidence, impinging on policy development: only 15% of respondents to a survey, including congressional staff members and civil servants, judged researchers, academics and consultants as “very important” in informing policy. In contrast, 33% of respondents judged interest groups to be so.

Other reasons why science doesn’t inform policy in a linear fashion include the necessity for scientific evidence to accumulate before a policy position can be developed on this basis; a single piece of scientific research is not likely to be sufficient to enable conclusions to be drawn. Scientific research is also ‘translated, condensed, repackaged and reinterpreted’, Gormley Jr. states, before it is used and information can be lost through this process. Finally, and most interestingly, the author suggests that officials are most likely to use scientific information to justify a position which they already hold, rather than that this evidence persuades them to adopt a different course of action. Gormley Jr. describes this as ‘strategic use’ of scientific evidence.

Early education researchers (and ecologists) can take several steps to make sure that their research is used by policy-makers. The first is to make sure that outputs are short and easily readable (the author cites a study that suggests that the average length of documents read, and not disgarded, by policy officials, is 2.91 pages). If research is of high quality it is also more likely to be used. Gormley Jr. highlights the importance of relationship building to the effective translation of research into policy: “the influence of research on policy-makers is typically greater when, before a policy debate, researchers and public officials enjoy a relationship of trust and mutual respect… Researchers are encouraged to “conceptualize policy-work not as disseminating research to policy-makers but as developing relationships with them””.

The author calls for scientists to ‘develop or support institutions that faciliate connections between citizens and scientists and between scientists and public officials’ (a strong commendation for Learned Societies such as the BES), and highlights the role of universities in providing information to non-profit groups wishing to influence policy-making – remaining non-partisan by engaging with as wide a variety of groups as possible.

In conclusion, Gormley Jr. suggests that ‘scientists who expect to see their latest research findings transformed into public policy are likely to be disappointed’ but that scientists who adjust their expectations as to what they can acheive are likely to discover ‘how powerful science can be’. He calls for scientists to produce more digestible policy briefs, to engage with policy-making colleagues regularly and to frame issues so that public officials can understand their significance. Those scientists wishing to engage with policy-makers should take heart; encouragingly, the same study that revealed that only 15% of officials felt that scientists were “very important” to policy development also found that 51% of respondents felt that they were “somewhat important”.